The goal of preserving nature is often in conflict with economic development and the aspirations of the rural poor. Nowhere is this more striking than in native grasslands, which have been extensively converted until a mere fraction of their original extent remains. This is not surprising; grasslands flourish in places coveted by humans, primed for agriculture, plantations, and settlements that nearly always trump conservation efforts. The Umgano grassland conservation and poverty reduction project in KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa uses community-based spatial planning to balance the conversion of its lower-conservation value grasslands to a timber plantation, while conserving higher-value grasslands for heritage purposes and managed livestock grazing. Ten years after project launch, we measured the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of the project using Normalized Differential Vegetation Index remote sensing data and over 500 household interviews, as compared with similar non-conserved areas. Zoned management of the Umgano area had resulted in between 9% and 17% greater average peak production in the grassland areas compared to control sites. There was also a 21% gain in incomes for the roughly one hundred people employed by the forestry efforts, when compared to others in their village. Community-based spatial zoning is an overlooked tool for balancing conservation and development but may require, as we found in Umgano, certain critical factors including strong local leadership, an accountable financial management mechanism to distribute income, outside technical expertise for the zoning design, and community support.
The potential for conservation of individual species has been greatly advanced by the International Union for Conservation of Natures (IUCN) development of objective, repeatable, and transparent criteria for assessing extinction risk that explicitly separate risk assessment from priority setting. At the IV World Conservation Congress in 2008, the process began to develop and implement comparable global standards for ecosystems. A working group established by the IUCN has begun formulating a system of quantitative categories and criteria, analogous to those used for species, for assigning levels of threat to ecosystems at local, regional, and global levels. A final system will require definitions of ecosystems; quantification of ecosystem status; identification of the stages of degradation and loss of ecosystems; proxy measures of risk (criteria); classification thresholds for these criteria; and standardized methods for performing assessments. The system will need to reflect the degree and rate of change in an ecosystems extent, composition, structure, and function, and have its conceptual roots in ecological theory and empirical research. On the basis of these requirements and the hypothesis that ecosystem risk is a function of the risk of its component species, we propose a set of four criteria: recent declines in distribution or ecological function, historical total loss in distribution or ecological function, small distribution combined with decline, or very small distribution. Most work has focused on terrestrial ecosystems, but comparable thresholds and criteria for freshwater and marine ecosystems are also needed. These are the first steps in an international consultation process that will lead to a unified proposal to be presented at the next World Conservation Congress in 2012.
In light of limited conservation funding, global conservation initiatives are increasingly focused on regions of the planet that have been identified as valuable on the basis of their species diversity, the vulnerability of resident species to extinction, or the perceived pristine nature of their ecosystems. Regions that have been resilient to high rates of extinction have not yet been systematically considered in conservation efforts. We used published range maps for 392 vertebrate species to compare historical and current species ranges. We used the results of the comparison to identify regions of the globe in which no known vertebrate species has been extirpated in the past 200 years. In 17 regions, no detectable vertebrate extinctions occurred in the past 200 years. In 6 other regions, reintroductions of species restored the full historic complement of vertebrate species. The effects of humans on a landscape, as measured by the human-footprint index, although useful, was not a singularly good predictor of faunal intactness because more than 20% of intact land area was in heavily affected areas (50% of Earths land area), and several regions where humans have had very little effect did not have intact faunas. Only 22% of intact land area was within protected-area networks. High-latitude areas were particularly underrepresented; they made up 3 of the 4 least-protected areas in our analyses. Our results indicate that although protected areas are in some cases associated with the prevention of extinctions, there are many regions in which human activity coexists with intact vertebrate assemblages. In addition, our new approach for assessing the value of global regions for conservation identifies several regions that are not represented in other prioritization metrics.
Protected areas (PAs) are a cornerstone of conservation efforts and now cover nearly 13% of the worlds land surface, with the worlds governments committed to expand this to 17%. However, as biodiversity continues to decline, the effectiveness of PAs in reducing the extinction risk of species remains largely untested. We analyzed PA coverage and trends in species extinction risk at globally significant sites for conserving birds (10,993 Important Bird Areas, IBAs) and highly threatened vertebrates and conifers (588 Alliance for Zero Extinction sites, AZEs) (referred to collectively hereafter as important sites). Species occurring in important sites with greater PA coverage experienced smaller increases in extinction risk over recent decades: the increase was half as large for bird species with>50% of the IBAs at which they occur completely covered by PAs, and a third lower for birds, mammals and amphibians restricted to protected AZEs (compared with unprotected or partially protected sites). Globally, half of the important sites for biodiversity conservation remain unprotected (49% of IBAs, 51% of AZEs). While PA coverage of important sites has increased over time, the proportion of PA area covering important sites, as opposed to less important land, has declined (by 0.45-1.14% annually since 1950 for IBAs and 0.79-1.49% annually for AZEs). Thus, while appropriately located PAs may slow the rate at which species are driven towards extinction, recent PA network expansion has under-represented important sites. We conclude that better targeted expansion of PA networks would help to improve biodiversity trends.
We assessed a donor-funded grassland management project designed to create both conservation and livelihood benefits in the rangelands of Mongolias Gobi desert. The project ran from 1995 to 2006, and we used remote sensing Normalized Differential Vegetation Index data from 1982 to 2009 to compare project grazing sites to matched control sites before and after the projects implementation. We found that the productivity of project grazing sites was on average within 1% of control sites for the 20 years before the project but generated 11% more biomass on average than the control areas from 2000 to 2009. To better understand the benefits of the improved grasslands to local people, we conducted 280 household interviews, 8 focus group discussions, and 31 key informant interviews across 6 districts. We found a 12% greater median annual income as well as a range of other socioeconomic benefits for project households compared to control households in the same areas. Overall, the project generated measurable benefits to both nature and people. The key factors underlying project achievements that may be replicable by other conservation projects include the community-driven approach of the project, knowledge exchanges within and between communities inside and outside the country, a project-supported local community organizer in each district, and strong community leadership.
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